bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The stories manuscript tell: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 October, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is monumental. The British Library has become accustomed to putting on ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that cram its gallery with items — and visitors — to the point of sensory overload: feasts for the eyes which go beyond an elegant sufficiency. At the end of any show, its curator must have an acute feeling of the passing of a moment, but when this exhibition closes, something more will happen. Never before has it been possible to look at the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book side-by-side, or to stand looking at the diminutive Cuthbert (formerly Stonyhurst) Gospel and then turn to ninety degrees to see the outsize Northumbrian masterpiece, the Codex Amiatinus. A sweep of manuscripts that takes us from the first known book in England, the St Augustine Gospels, to Great Domesday, and beyond, with the exhibition’s coda being a stupendous case placing the Utrecht, the Harley and the Eadwine Psalters in dialogue with each other. An exhibition where the Lindisfarne Gospels are reduced to a walk-on part, upstaged by the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels near by them. Those who saw the Bodleian’s recent Designing English will be insouciant about the Alfred Jewel and the Alfredian translation of Gregory the Great being together (and, in truth, Oxford did that combination better) but they will not have had the chance see the treaty between Alfred and Guthrun close by, or Beowulf in the same rooms, or items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Plus, mingling with books and objects, there are single-page letters and charters which enliven and deepen the story. Never before and, given the ravages of time exacerbated by the present resurgence of petty nationalism, most likely never again. When the curators oversee the exhibition being dismantled, it will be difficult for them not to have a tear in their eye because they will know that something unprecedented is being irrecoverably lost. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is not, in the usual publicity parlance, a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience; it is once in the life of the world.

This is an exhibition, then, that cannot be judged by the usual standards. If it were, we might set the litmus test: does it make best use of the materials to hand for its stated aim? How good is it at telling the story of the English lands from the fifth to the eleventh century? I am not the person to answer that, and not just because my expertise lies much later than the Anglo-Saxon period. I have only, so far, had chance to make one visit of two-and-a-half hours. I will surely appreciate different elements when I return again and, hopefully, again. On this first occasion, my palaeographical interest informed my viewing: there before me, in the flesh, were so many of the manuscripts that I have mentioned to students and encouraged them to study, online or in reproduction. It was like having a bibliography of must-see manuscripts that reside on disparate shelves all flutter down and come to rest in one place. This makes it for me and (I have heard tell) for other scholars, an exhibition with a massive emotional punch. I admit all those points but, at the same time, I believe the items themselves dictated my response: in the vast majority of cases, each manuscript opening was so rich with information that it commands your focus, only for its neighbour to redirect you, at which point you step back and appreciate the contrasts and the comparisons between that coupling. And so on, taking the manuscripts and charters as small groups, sometimes separated between cases, sometimes making you move back and forth in the rooms to the annoyance of others present. That is to say, I did not so much ‘take in a show’ as wallow in its exhibits.

Not all the manuscripts hold equal allure: Beowulf is an unprepossessing volume, whose attraction is perhaps enhanced by the damage it suffered in the Cottonian fire of 1731. But why it should contrast substantially with the grandeur of others shown before and after it in these rooms is itself an interesting question. In other words, while the layout of the gallery encourages a singular linear progress, the items on display propose other itineraries: they encourage you to make the museumscape your own. I emphasise this because it provides for me a partial solution to a problem I have with exhibitions of manuscripts. Here is the issue: a book is not an art object in the same way as a painting or a statue — those latter artworks are intentionally single and, in the right conditions, can be observed as a whole. The virtue of a book, in contrast, is that it is plural, that it is intended to be picked up and its pages turned: it has kinetic energy. To put this another way, it is less an object than a performer. When it becomes an object is as part of a gathering of books: a library impresses by the quantity of packed shelves, and teases by its owner taking out just one of the volumes and opening it before you. The library offers the possibility of reading, but the exhibition display (as we know it) cannot. It reduces the books to being like other art objects; it captures these performers in tableaux.

So, for me in an exhibition of manuscripts, there is often a frustration at the static presentation of these mobile, plural items. That, though, would be too begrudging when faced with what is, in effect, the ultimate pop-up library, an unrepeatable conglomeration of outstanding codices. Each, yes, is forced into a single pose but at least each is open alongside others. As a palaeographer, I would have preferred fewer openings highlighting illumination and instead ones foregrounding the fundamental artistry of a book which is its script. Yet, with what we have here there is so much to read, not simply in the sense of deciphering words but, more widely, in looking at the object. At the most basic level, this is about matters of size: the exhibition ranges from the pocket-book to the all-too-heavy Amiatinus. The sense of the individual shape — I was surprised by how relatively thick the Cuthbert Gospel was — is brought home by each being placed in relation to the others. Issues of magnitude relate also to the script used. Some of the opening cases bring in close proximity fragments of the letters of Cyprian (BL, MS. Add. 40165A), the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict (Bodleian, MS. Hatton 48) and the earliest known charter of English origin, made by Hlothhere, king of Kent, at Reculver in 679 (BL, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2). They are all in a script we would term uncial but the differences between them and, in particular, how small and delicate the module is of the charter’s writing, are what is most noticeable in how they are presented here.

London: British Library, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2 (top part), Reculver, 679

The history of script is very much on display: the grandeur of uncial and half-uncial; the practical importance of insular minuscule; its later replacement by what we know as Anglo-Saxon minuscule, itself increasingly informed by and challenged by the presence of caroline minuscule, and the changes that bookhand underwent at the masterful fingertips of Eadui Basan and Eadwine — these can be traced through the exhibition, if you care to find them. Attention is not drawn to these issues by the captions but what matters is the material is available to allow you to investigate these elements.


So, I will end these musings with two pleas. One is to future curators of exhibitions: you will not be able to repeat the unforgettable success of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms but when you are looking for a successor worthy of its achievement, do think of having an event which takes a single period in western history and looks at its manuscripts primarily through their scripts and, more generally, through their physicality. Such insights are necessarily there in the exhibition and perhaps providing visitors with suggested multiple itineraries would be one way of encouraging them to see the multiple perspectives this display allows. As it stands, the viewer needs to make the exhibition their own and so my second plea is to anyone going to London: be like walkers in the city and when you are in the gallery, find your own routes through it, not expecting to travel in one required direction but, instead, toing and froing through its riches. That assumes, of course, you do visit it. If what I have said has not been explicit enough, let me be clear: your grandparents could not imagine this event, your grandchildren will envy you your tales of it. Go, go, go.


Mandrakes in the Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 6 November, 2017

One of the items which belongs to the Library of Christ Church, Oxford, is a silver box, in fine filigree, possibly an early eighteenth-century Parisian product. In it sit two mandrakes which look so much like miniature long-faced humans, complete with unkempt hair, that it is hard not to think of the sunken heads from a very different tradition that sit across town in the Pitt Rivers Museum. These mandrakes fascinate viewers but they also disconcert. That is not just because they hint at the magical qualities that lore claims these roots hold but also because their presence in a library seems so out of place. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, when the circumstances of their arrival in the Library was recognised, what was considered worthy of attention was the box in which they had been donated; the mandrakes themselves were all but ignored.

Christ Church Library Mandrakes

Christ Church Library’s mandrakes in their filigree box

The mandrakes set us a challenge. That they should have been given to a library and that the Library of this learned foundation should keep them — both facts seem decidedly odd. We know that a library, particularly in such a place of education, is a home for tomes, carefully classified and arranged on shelves. What shelfmark could a mandrake be given? How dare they offend the order of the place? It is not, though, these things alone: coins, clothing, instruments (scientific and musical), paintings, pottery and toys, all have come to live in Christ Church Library. All may appear incongruous interruptions or, worse, blemishes, specks of dirt in the system. To think like this is to find our sense of order colliding with that of the space itself, its genius.

The challenge, in other words, is to question our own perception of what makes a library. We know that it is formed not only of books; the volumes have to be corralled into order, with labels and a catalogue. We expect also furniture: shelves, desks, chairs. We know there must be sources of light (without endangering the books), so windows and, nowadays, electric lamps. We also know that other items are considered appropriate: works of art, for instance. If these things, then why not others? The decisions about what is suitable will change with time but a constant will be this: the other items put the books in context; the un-books make this book space. They are not in conflict with the library; they are constitutive of it.

The mandrakes and their box did not arrive alone. They were part of a bequest given in 1686 to the Library by the executors of Christ Church’s late dean, John Fell. He, who had presided over the building of Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, had himself been a towering figure in Oxford. His whole life had been associated with Christ Church: he was the son of Dean Samuel Fell, who had been ejected from his position at the end of the Civil War. John never gave up his royalist and Anglican allegiances, making him a suitable candidate to be eventual successor to his father following the Restoration. He set about constructing Christ Church’s identity as a bastion of the restored establishment, committed to both tradition and educational advance. He continued as dean even when he was promoted to the role of bishop of Oxford in 1676. His passing was the end of an era.

What his executors considered a suitable bequest to the Library was eclectic. The donation included three printed books, as well as the ‘Two Mandrakes in a Silver Box’; in addition, there was ‘The Picture of King Henry 8th’ and ‘Libr. palmeum ling. Selanensi’, that is, a book on palm leaves in the Ceylonese language. The list suggests something of the range of items that were thought appropriate for a library. Its walls could be adorned with portraits and there was no more fitting act of piety than to display an image of Henry VIII, founder of the institution (if, though, there was not one in situ before this gift, that would be striking). Likewise, its books did not have to confine themselves to the Western tradition, and thus the book on palm leaves could take its place in the collection. This should give us pause for thought.

ChCh MS. LR 1 fol. 198a

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. LR 1, fol. 198a (detail): part of the record of the bequest from John Fell, 1686

We know a library is about the possibilities of intellectual interaction with the written word. We recognise that there might be volumes in its collection which may be in a language or in a style of writing we cannot decode but we are confident that they are there because somebody else will. What happens, though, if that polyglot decipherer of texts does not arrive? What if the words are so obscure to be permanently illegible? In the case of Fell’s Ceylonese book — which was perhaps testimony to his encouragement of missionary work — we can certainly doubt that he, with all his wide learning, or anyone else in Oxford at the time, could have sat down to read it. That being the case, was it status so very different from that of an object like the mandrakes? This book too borders on being an un-book. If this is so, it did not stand alone in the collection. To acknowledge that the supposedly out-of-place items in a library have a rationale for being there is to begin to ask how many of the books are considered merely or primarily repositories of texts and how far they had greater charisma as objects.

These are the questions which the new exhibition in Christ Church Upper Library is addressing. The display coincides with the publication of the Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Manuscripts, up to c. 1600, in Christ Church, Oxford by Ralph Hanna and myself (published by Oxford Bibliographical Society). It grows out of the research undertaken for that work’s introduction, in which the changing place of the western manuscripts within the wider collection was reconstructed. The exhibition, curated by Cristina Neagu and myself, gives a sense of the array of objects that have, over time, become part of the Library’s identity and asks visitors to consider what that history can tell us about what we expect a library to be.

Darkness legible

Posted in Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 15 January, 2017

Can an object really ever be out of place? Is it not us who are out of sorts when we find something misplaced? And that jolt which occurs as the mind fails to put it where we think it should be is the sensation of liberation as we discover and think anew.

So it is with an art exhibition like Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery. As I write, it is about to close its doors for the last time, allowing the paintings it brought together to return to their more accustomed surroundings. Most are familiar, some because they are burdened with the title of masterpieces, and several because they did have far to travel to take up their accommodation in the Sainsbury Wing: those exhibits are ones which are more often to be found resting upstairs against the walls of the main gallery. But what their temporary residence allowed was to see them afresh and it is about one of those I write now.

It is easy to understand why Adam de Coster’s ‘A Man singing by candlelight’ was thought appropriate for an exhibition named after Caravaggio. It is a bravura display of chiaroscuro in the style we relate to the Roman artist and to Georges de la Tour.

Image result for adam de coster singing by candlelight

Adam de Coster, ‘Man singing by Candlelight’, c. 1625-35 (National Gallery, London)

I must have passed it several times on previous visits to the National but something about its positioning in the exhibition arrested me. Perhaps it was the fact that, even in comparison with the other candlelit scenes displayed in the room, there is something audacious or downright odd about this painting. How many early seventeenth-century artists would be willing to place at the very centre of their picture what, in effect, is black space? If it were a century later, we might compare it with the blank pages in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. As it is we are more likely to ignore it and to concentrate on the artistry of the light thrown on the man’s face. We might even consider the invisible music book as an interruption or a blemish. What, on the contrary, struck me on this occasion was how that blackness unlocks the painting, how its illegibility helps us read it.

What, it seemed to me, standing before it in the over-crowded room (more on that another time) was that it spoke of an inverted world, a place in which we are the shadows. We are invited in, encouraged to imagine that we are there before the musician — for who else could be his audience? — but also kept at a distance. We are on the other side, where the light does not fall and where what we assume are words and notes is blackness. What cave is this we inhabit? One where we are incapable of reading — oh, but surely that is precisely what we are doing, explicating the painting as if its surface was a text. Except, of course, that we, in effect, are attempting to read in dark; we are in the wrong position to dicipher fully. So, let’s draw nearer and enter the painting’s world. But if we try that, our own penumbral status would melt in the warmth of the candle; we would lose our place. We believe — we have to believe — that we are more real than the image we are facing. After all, we have our senses. We know there is, in truth, no book and no space, just daubs of paint on the canvas. We can proudly say we have eyes to see. We can see, at the heart of the picture, precisely nothing. Is that achievement? Or is that the beam in our eye which makes us see absence? We also have ears to hear but do we hear the music? If we do not, is that the painting’s failing or ours?

Vanity publishing, the early modern way

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 31 January, 2016

Here is a jolly scene of music-making:

Thomas de Keyser, 'The Music Lesson' (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

Thomas de Keyser, The Music Lesson (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

This early seventeenth-century Dutch painting sits at the end of one wing of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen. Amidst that gallery’s riches – including a superlative Gerard David – the rather generic scene could easily be overlooked. What caught my eye (it may not surprise some who read this blog) was its depiction of books. In their rush to create a workable environment, the musicians had created an impromptu pile of books, intended to prop open the long, low shape of the score at the right page. Limp leather bindings sit one upon another, but look also what is underneath them. At the bottom is a sturdy wooden book-rest but that did not suffice for our lute-player who, to gain the right distance from his music, had placed open a heavy volume – we see the thick binding which looks as if leather over wooden boards, replete with two substantial clasps – at the edge of the rest, and layered the other volumes on top of it. That cannot be good for its spine. Here we have an example of that well-attested phenomenon, the abuse of books in art.

This is not the only example in Rouen’s collection – in another Dutch piece by Lambert Jacobsz, St Mark rests his heavy elbows on some pages. What made me stop to think about de Keyser’s picture, however, was the juxtaposition with it of another small canvas in the same room. Turn ninety degrees and this memento mori stands before you:

'Vanitas', c. 1630s (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

‘Vanitas’, c. 1630s (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

The skull presides over a scene reminding the viewer of the futility of human endeavour. The globe at the left wills us to ask ‘what shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?’. This man, though, has perhaps only dreamt of distant lands, and whiled away his time in the frivolity of violin-playing. The transient nature of the sound of music is reinforced by the flimsy score on which the skull lies, its pages and limp binding dangling over the side of the table, creating a trompe l’œil. Its material echoes that of the ragged broadsheet on the wall: paper is used as the epitome of impermanence.

The juxtaposition brought home to me what I should have realised in the first place: de Keyser’s scene is not simply a naturalistic rendering of a domestic setting but is freighted with similar moral messages to the ‘Vanitas’. The event it depicts is not simply a moment of happiness but, in its show of careless abandon, is one of danger to the soul, in which the frivolous is privileged and presses down upon the weightier, as the limp leather bindings sit and obscure the heavier tome.

The reason I share this with you is not simply as an exploration of a single painting seen on my holidays. It raises larger questions about how early modern users of book responded to different types of construction, how conscious they were of the quality of paper, what signification a style of binding may have had in their mind. Did a sense of their own ephemeral nature touch them as they fingered the pages of a thin, limply bound booklet? Did they expect true learning to come in thick-set folios? If so, what failure to appreciate the vanity of life must have lain there! This is to say, does an ordering such as that presented, by inversion, in de Keyser’s painting, collude in a belief that some human knowledge has more chance of being lasting? Thus we hide from the enormity of death.

This takes me to my final point: history, it is sometimes said, is about an attempt to cheat death, to live on beyond our mortal span. Historians, certainly, are memorialisers entrapped by previous generations’ attempts to be remembered. We are part of a cult of permanence or, rather, of the forlorn hope that we may be able to escape being ephemeral. As, though, we cannot, has not the time come that we should write the cultural history of impermanence? That could be a truly monumental volume.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the RA

Posted in Art, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 30 December, 2014

Chance meetings are one of the little pleasures that enrich life. As the streets grow ever more crowded and their occurrence thus rarer, they become all the more precious. And as, we are told, our population increase is, in part at least, thanks to immigration and so, as a society, we want to reflect on the benefits that brings, let us add this to the blessings it offers our island.

And so, stepping onto the pavement near Marble Arch in the days before Christmas, I happened to meet my friend of many years, now the reviews editor for History Today, Philippa Joseph. She was off to the office, while I was on my way to the Royal Academy and the exhibition on the mid-sixteenth century Bergamese artist, Battista Moroni. On hearing this, Philippa asked me whether I had seen the review of the show by Piers Baker-Bates – that I had not was not a surprise, considering it appears in the January issue of History Today at that point just being published. As we boarded the Underground, Philippa, with characteristic generosity, presented me with a copy of the magazine and left me to do my homework on the tube, during the short trip to Piccadilly.

This was a moment of triple serendipity – seeing Philippa, reading a review of an exhibition I was about to see, and that written by another friend, for Piers and I have crossed paths both in subterranean pizza joints in Cambridge and before the fire-place at the British School at Rome. His review (I hope this acts as no spoiler to those who have not read it) is effusive in its praise and I can certainly see why: there is much to enjoy in this densely packed exhibition. It has some gorgeous works on display, skilfully presented with a strong logic to the arrangement – in fact, too strong. That, as I will explain, is one reservation I have, but all my comments are intended not to denigrate what is there and, rather, to suggest how we can deepen our appreciation further.

As Piers points out, Moroni was once a painter in fashion – not only in his lifetime in Bergamo in the 1560s, but also when the Victorians bought up his portraits. That his name is less known now has made some newspapers call the decision to put on this show ‘brave’, though I am not sure the element of virtus that is courage has much to do with it and, certainly, on my visit, the subject’s relative obscurity did not seem to have dented the exhibition’s popularity. It had, though, affected some of the choices of how to present the material. It seems that, concerned to sell their painter to an audience that they appear to feel needed direction, the curators allowed the caption-writer to descend into an imperiously didactic mode which wreaks of old-style connoisseurship. ‘No detail in the painting can divert attention from the piercing gaze fixed on the spectator by the young woman’, the visitor is directed in front of the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’. Well, for this viewer, there are details that capture the attention and – I submit – enrich the portrait. Bear with me for a while before I explain why.


‘The exhibition takes us chronologically through Moroni’s career and illustrates clearly how his artistic trajectory developed’ – thus Dr Baker-Bates in History Today. This does, indeed, seem to be the rationale, except that the last room, packed with impressive pieces, breaks the logic. It includes the portrait of a doctor or magistrate leaning back in his chair (there is something of Lorenzo Lotto here; it is now in Brescia); it dates itself by the ruse of a note on the letter the sitter holds to the year 1560 – that is, at a time when Moroni was the in-vogue painter of Bergamo, as shown three rooms earlier in the exhibition. The title for this last room provides another explanation for its organisation: it is called ‘The Beginnings of Modern Portraiture’. Here grand claims are made for Moroni’s achievement, explaining that in his ‘final decades’, when he had returned to the town of his birth, a few miles from Bergamo, he mastered the production of portraits ‘with [such] startling realism, tonal effects and strong characterisation [that they] anticipate the work of such seventeenth-century artists as Caravaggio and Velázquez, through to Ingres, Degas and Manet in the nineteenth century’. Is this sort of writing still acceptable in art history? It sounds more like journalese, where the newspaper has required an ex cathedra statement from an academic because that is what they are meant to say. It ignores causation – did Caravaggio, let alone Velázquez, study Moroni’s work? – and context – were there no artists from whom Moroni adopted techniques?

It also, of course, assumes a ‘progress’ towards later-life perfection. How we all hope we can achieve that! Yet, the exhibition itself suggested something else to me. The captions repeated talk of the intense gaze of the person portrayed but I must say that it seemed to me that Moroni was a master of the dead eyes – there is rarely an attempt to bring the irises alive; his art is more in the posture, the inclined head and the hands. These are figures which are, most often, statuesque, painted as if they are patiently positioned very still. But not always – for me, those portraits which come alive are those that depict not as much the person but a moment: the second, for instance, at which the Lateran Canon turns to the painter and his lips being to curl in a smile. Or the portrait of the child (surely a difficult subject to keep in one position) which captures her playing with beads. Or – to return to one which we have mentioned before – the portrait of a young lady at the moment she is about to spread her fan to cool her face.

None of the three paintings just mentioned is firmly dated: the latter two are tentatively attributed to the early 1570s, while the Lateran Canon (now in Rotterdam) is thought to be about 1558. That is to say, there is no certain line of development: we are not necessarily seeing increasing skill or deepening insight over time, but rather an artist who can ‘do’ both the statuesque and the more informal, the more human. Even this dichotomy does not sum up a range which also, as this exhibition shows, includes altarpieces with at least one very striking ‘Last Supper’ (from Romano di Lombardia) where the servant pouring the wine – with all the theological implications invested in that vase – upstages the central figure of Christ. There is not a single style on display in these rooms – and there is not a single way in which they should be viewed.

This is a stimulating exhibition, for more reasons that I have had chance to explain here. It is about to close – so, go now, and help convince the Royal Academy that it is such a success they did not need to patronise the viewers with de-haut-en-bas captions and an over-simplified narrative. The curators and the Academy are to be thanked for arranging it – and, myself, I have to thank Piers and Philippa for increasing my enjoyment of my visit. And, of course, the benign gods that bring us immigration. Long may it continue.

The Renaissance, English self-deception and homegrown imports

Posted in British Renaissance interest, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 April, 2014

When it came to constructing ‘our own’ ‘Very British Renaissance’, the Scots, it seems, had little to contribute. In the first episode of the BBC programme of that title, presented by the art historian Dr James Fox, Stirling Castle made a guest appearance. It stood alone: the second episode of the three-part series dispensed with any attempt to define ‘British’ as anything other than ‘English’, with Wales and, indeed, most of England itself beyond the south-east also forgotten. And, indeed, if those from north of the border played any role in this Renaissance, it was, implicitly, as the bad guys: it all went wrong, the final episode suggested, when James I (as he was described) allowed a Stuart court culture to develop that looked to the ‘foreign Renaissance’ rather than to ‘our homegrown’ one.

You will see that I have stayed the course, selflessly I may say, caring not for blood pressure nor for restful leisure time. After I fulminated about the first episode ‘A Very British Renaissance’, I felt it behove me to continue watching so that you did not have to (and I know several of you are grateful to me for that). And I must admit that the later episodes surprised me in two ways. The first was that I found myself growing to like the tall figure on the small screen. I will admit that ‘to my mind’ – a favourite phrase of Dr Fox – the presenter, in his first instalment, was simply too fey as he chatted up a putto. In the second, which concentrated on Elizabethan England, he was more knowing and his enthusiasm was undeniably infectious. That excitement continued into the last episode but with it came an element not seen before, a certain forthrightness, a willingness to dismiss as much as to delight. The one constant across these later episodes was that he did not cleanse himself of those attitudes which had so successfully raised my hackles earlier: his blithe elision of England with Britain; his unblinking assumption that, of course, these islands had a separate civilization from mainland Europe, and his recourse to a depiction of ‘our’ ‘British’ character which, he implied, the Renaissance reaffirmed and reinforced. In fact, the second surprise was the way in which the third episode saw him dirty his hands further with this greater-England, little-Britain Whiggish cant.

Having given his first discussion over to the supposed domestication of the Italian Renaissance on these shores in the earlier sixteenth century, the second episode had concentrated on how peculiarly ‘British’ was the art of Nicholas Hilliard or were the achievements of Thomas Harriot as the English Leonardo. The final offering took, from its start, a rather different angle, setting up a dichotomy between the court’s ‘foreign’ Renaissance, all classicism, masques and ‘sycophantic drivel’, and the wholesome, homegrown British Renaissance of the ‘real world’ – which turned out to be the Suffolk countryside and Christ Church, Oxford. Now, I am a Houseman, Oxford’s Henrician foundation my alma mater, and the stately expanse of Tom Quad through which Fox walked saw me mature, while the elegance of the Upper Library is where I will be at work with the manuscripts this afternoon, sitting at the desk where the presenter fingered The Anatomy of Melancholy. But even I would not want to claim for this cathedral-college status as the epitome of reality – and not because, before it became known as (and I have truly heard a tour-guide call it thus) ‘Harry Potter’s college’, it was the looking-glass world of Alice. Rather, we should be severely sceptical of any neat distinction between ‘fantasy’ and the ‘real’, as if each did not mediate the other to such an extent that the technicolor and the monochrome bleed together in our lives. The desire for dichotomy – the ordering of the world by binary oppositions – is itself suspect but has been the driving motor of ‘A Very British Renaissance’. Its shift of gear in the third episode begged more questions than it could possibly answer: were there, then, two Renaissances occurring simultaneously in England? Was the ‘Italian Renaissance’ still alive, then, in the early seventeenth century or was the court outdated as well as decadent? When did the division between ‘court’ and – though this was not Fox’s term – ‘country’ develop?

However inconsistent it may be with what went before, it could be said, in its defence, that at least a political thread united this presentation with the previous ones: it would not take a master cryptographer to decode the implications of a tale of an out-of-touch élite squandering money on ‘Europe’ while the true British heroes knew the value of their own land. We could also hope that it should also not take an intelligent viewer many moments to see this is as fictitious as most Europhobic yarns. Fox suggested that while the Stuarts preferred the fripperies of a van Dyck portrait, those elsewhere were developing the English genius, with Nathaniel Bacon both a gardener and an artist of his products, and William Harvey the man who made medicine modern by his discovery of the circulation of the blood. No mention of the genre of the still life of the Dutch Golden Age that clearly inspired Bacon; no hint that Harvey had read the medical pioneers Vesalius or Matteo Realdo Colombo. Perhaps there is something quintessentially ‘British’ in the homegrown’s reliance on the import – and on the self-deception that it is English tout court.

Does this matter? I do recognise that, however well Mr Farage and his band of Europhobes do on 22nd May 2014 when about a quarter of the electorate bother to turn out, it will probably not be with a mental image of ‘A Very British Renaissance’ in their minds that the voters’ hand swings to the UKIP box. I also appreciate that I could be accused of asking too much – a consistent argument, an honesty with the evidence: but this is a television programme! And that, I think, is where my concern lies. My mind veers towards another series airing at the moment, the deliciously satirical take on the modern BBC, ‘W1A’. In the latest episode, there is a scene where the Head of Values is on his phone counselling against moving ‘Songs of Praise’ to the radio to make TV space for ‘Britain’s Tastiest Village’. He suggests it is not in the spirit of Lord Reith – a pause as he listens – and repeats ‘Reith’, the name clearly unfamiliar to his BBC colleague. ‘W1A’ has drawn plaudits for the Corporation’s ability to find comedic value in its corporate workings; perhaps ‘A Very British Renaissance’ was commissioned in a similar spirit, one of parody of the public broadcasting tradition. It takes on a serious subject, it travels to umpteen settings, it has a ‘Dr’, no less, to present it. Yet, if the curious watched the programme in the hope of learning about the Renaissance what could they take from it, apart from possibly unintended and unwanted advice on their voting intentions? There is no clear definition of ‘Renaissance’, a rather incomplete sense of chronology, a cast-list of characters that combines household names with the little known in a manner which could be interesting but is more likely to confuse – not to mention the absence of any discussion of the ‘how’: how precisely, for example, were the English able to access foreign fashions and how that changed over the period. An audience is more likely to leave this befuddled than enlightened.

I am, though, being ungenerous. What a viewer could not help but take away from Dr Fox’s engaged and personable presentation is that there is a relationship between the British Isles and what we call the Renaissance which is worth investigating. That is surely a public service in itself. Maybe it will even convince the Head of Values — or whichever head poncho — that a programme introducing to a wide public the richness and complexity of that history would be worth commissioning.

A very conservative Renaissance

Posted in British Renaissance interest, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 March, 2014

I am not in the habit of shouting at the television.  In part, that is because I am not much of a TV-watcher: until my then partner, now wife, moved in, there was no box in the house. When I do sit in front of it, the programmes on offer are usually not the sort to arouse violent reactions: I find it hard to get angry with Inspector Montablano. But a documentary has had me not just emitting expletives in a raised voice but also searching for suitable objects or pets to throw at the screen (lucky, then, that there are no animals in the house). The programme was the BBC’s ‘flag-ship’ arts phenomenon, ‘A Very British Renaissance’, presented by James Fox – not the actor but brother of Edward Fox, but ‘Dr James Fox’ (nowadays those who have written a dissertation can only appear on TV accompanied by the title, as if it were a mark of their trustworthiness in all matters).

I did not come to the programme cold: already this week I was put in training for the new sport of yelling in frustration and ire at the small screen. I had caught a few moments of another offering from the BBC, its ‘How to Get Ahead, at Renaissance Court’ – clever title, pity about the content. When I joined it, the presenter, Stephen Smith, was standing in the cortile of Florence’s Bargello, in front of Cellini’s bust of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, with its all’antica armour and ducal features finely realised in metal. Smith explains, however, that the Duke hated it because it presented him as a medieval prince while – cut to the Uffizi, with Smith next to Bronzino’s portrait of the Duke in armour – this is how he wanted to be presented, as a Renaissance prince. Smith went on to explain ‘Renaissance’ by evoking (in not so many words) Castigilione’s idea of sprezzatura but by then I had bawled at the screen and scrambled for the remote control. It was not simply that it had been assumed that two objects could encapsulate the contrast between ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ – it was the very presence of that discredited dichotomy, expressed with no reservation or recognition of its problematic nature, that made choice words fall unbidden from my lips.

I must admit I did expect ‘A Very British Renaissance’ to give me more opportunities to put my lung capacity through its paces. My prediction that the fifteenth-century Renaissance elements about which I write would be entirely absent quickly proved true. The Renaissance arrived, apparently, in 1507, when Pietro Torrigiano set foot on English soil (or mud, the dominant metaphor for ‘medieval’ Britain in this programme).  No time, then, for Poggio Bracciolini or Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, or for the likes of Pietro Carmeliano, secretary and scribe to Henry VII. Indeed, according to the presenter, while ‘the Renaissance had been raging in Italy for two hundred years … here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever’. As you might imagine, at this point in the programme, rage was not confined to trecento and quattrocento Italy. The reason given for this laggardly showing? There had been so much in-fighting that Britain ‘hadn’t had time for a Renaissance’ – not (Dr Fox might have mentioned) that the struggles for power in Florence or the rivalry with Milan or between Milan and Venice had put a brake on ‘the Renaissance’. Neither, having been softened up by Mr Smith’s performance earlier in the week, did the recourse to the simplistic medieval / Renaissance division catch me completely off guard. So, we had Nicholas Kratzer with his ‘formidable mind – a genuinely Renaissance mind’, since he was interested in scientific observation. Likewise, we had his friend Hans Holbein, over whose drawings at Windsor Fox rhapsodised in eloquent fashion, introducing his peroration with ‘I think they’re even more important’ – it was part of the style of the programme that when a point required emphasis it was introduced by a first-person comment, even though the thought that followed was never original or particularly insightful. In this case, it was the claim that in Holbein’s drawings there were ‘the seeds of a new idea – the moment when people stopped thinking about themselves as types … and started to think about themselves as individuals.’ And so was brushed away over a century of scholarship spent dismantling the dubious concepts provided by Michelet and Burckhardt and we are again mired in talk of ‘the birth of the individual’.

It is a moment like this that you want to stop the presenter and interrogate him. In precisely what way is the remarkable draughtsmanship of Holbein associated with a new individualism? Is it that he made his sitters aware of their own selves? Did they walk in thinking of themselves as a type and leave realising they were unique? Or was the fact that they were willing to sit for him evidence that they already had a sense of their own individuality which they wanted captured on paper by this artist for hire? If so, then their sense of self did not need Holbein; it gained expression through him. But also, if so, did not the fact that these courtiers and merchants chose to call on Holbein’s services group them together as a type – the sort of person who would waste some of their expendable wealth on the conspicuous consumption of having their portrait done? They could chant in unison ‘we are all individuals’.

Yet, even the muddle-minded, half-baked historical thinking that underpinned the presentation was not what should concern us most. For one thing, there was also a disturbing politics at play. I realise the BBC is sensitive to the accusation of left-wing bias and maybe they worried about the fact that their presenter is a leftie – in the sense that David Cameron is. And Barack Obama. And me. Did they decide they needed their left-handed presenter to be not just right-on but also right-wing, so much so that the attitudes he was required to spout could warm the heart of Mr Farage (if he watched such cerebral stuff)? Did they require Dr Fox to give lines like the British ‘didn’t simply copy Europe, they would do things differently’? ‘Europe’ was consistently used in the sense of ‘the continent’. The assumption that the British Isles is not and has not been part of Europe is depressing politics based on bad history: it was certainly not how contemporaries in the period Dr Fox was discussing would have envisaged their civilisation. Meanwhile, in this year of the Scottish referendum, it might have been thought appropriate to make the case for a shared identity between Scotland and England. So, a section was included on Stirling Castle, but it would be understandable if those north of the border felt the programme stank of Sassenach arrogance. The terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ were used interchangeably; the overarching narrative was one provided by the political history of that part of the British Isles that centred on London. Thus, the Reformation discussed was that experienced in England, admittedly with notable omissions — no Break with Rome or Dissolution of the Monasteries — and ample space for anti-Catholic righteous indignation at the Marian persecution of Protestants, those ‘innocent people’ whose only crime was their religious difference from their monarch. The purpose of those lines was to introduce John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in which (the author’s near-namesake claimed) the true genius lay in its illustrations. At this point, we might have expected some discussion of their artistic skill but the only association made with the apparent theme of the programme was that the book was produced using a ‘Renaissance invention’ by which printing was presumably meant. Let us leave aside the re-write of history that implies, and concentrate on the conclusion of the section where it was asserted that the Book of Martyrs was not just ‘a monumental work of the Renaissance but also the beginning of a distinctly British tradition of graphically exposing injustice’.

And so we have the British (for which read mainly English) ‘genius’. The relative influences of Hegel and Herder on Burckhardt have been debated; the shadows of both fall across this programme but it turns out that the noun in the title is less significant than the adjective: this is less about the supposed Zeitgeist of the Renaissance than about the mythical Volksgeist of ‘the British’. Sir Arthur Bryant would be proud. What it is to be ‘British’ was not entirely pleasant: without the effete ‘elegance’ of the Mediterranean, ‘our’ Renaissance would express ‘solid, earthy reality’, and while there was a sense of fair play, there was also dislike of Catholics, and of foreigners, despite Britain’s debt to them. It was a construction of ‘Britishness’ in which England’s one intellectual of European standing in the early sixteenth century could have no place: Thomas More was conspicuous by his exclusion.

Perhaps, though, even a little Englander mentality is not the most worrying element in this programme. What was most depressing was that the information was presented not as a point of view, open to debate, but as a set of unquestionable facts: ‘I think’ used as an expression not of humility but of certainty. It presented a mindset in which the past can be easily categorised and judged. ‘How good a poet was he?’, Dr Fox asked about Thomas Wyatt (you can guess the answer). Standing besides the portrait by John Bettes in Tate Britain, he commented ‘I must admit this is not as good as Holbein but it’s pretty darn good’. We were given a history defined by league tables, in which Renaissance is certainly better than medieval, and in which Britain is separate from and implicitly better than ‘Europe’.  Who constructs these league tables? The presenters, the doctors, the ‘experts’ – even when their expertise is patently doubtful. You, the viewers, have no part in that construction, you are the passive recipients of what is claimed to be established knowledge. You cannot see – to return to Stephen Smith – that Bronzino is Renaissance and Cellini medieval? That is because you are no expert. What unites the two programmes is that they are not intended to develop the watchers’ critical faculties or their ability to analyse the objects being displayed: it is, rather, to remind us that, we, on the wrong side of the screen, lack those faculties. This is not about liberal education but about indoctrination. It is this, even more than its recourse to a tired, demonstrably mistaken historiography, that makes these programmes deeply, depressingly conservative. Is this really in the spirit of the mission of the BBC?

Art under Attack at the Tate

Posted in Biblioclasm, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 6 January, 2014

I went to visit a turkey last week and I do not even like turkeys. Tate Britain’s ‘Art under Attack’ was declared by The Independent to be the museum world’s ‘turkey of the year’. It is not difficult to see why it has received such unwanted accolades – but it deserved a better reaction. It is disjointed – jumping from the ‘long Reformation’ to later modern attacks on statues – and incohesive, attempting to combine suffragette hacking at art with post-War theories of creative destructivity. Its title is also a triple misnomer – but even a problematic exhibition that cannot but fail to live up to its ambitions can be thought-provoking, and this one was certainly that.

I said that its title, which in full is ‘Art under Attack: histories of British Iconoclasm’, is a misnomer thrice over; here is why. First, an exhibition that includes New York destruction of royalist monuments during the American Revolution takes the definition of Britain to its edges but when it includes similar attacks on statues in post-independence Eire, it stretches beyond acknowledged limits. Second, if iconoclasm is the destruction of images, then this show is a celebration of its failure: it necessarily catalogues survivals, sometimes partial, sometimes near-complete. It documents damage and disrespect rather than full-scale loss. Indeed, in some cases like when the suffragettes took the cleaver to gallery exhibits the intention was clearly not to end the work’s life but to violate it. In that context, there was certainly an acknowledgement that what was being attacked was art – as the exhibition shows, idealised female beauty was being made to submit to the ugliness of the culture in which it was venerated – but in other milieux was it ‘art’ that was at stake?

In the reconstruction of battles over public monuments, for instance, were the high-up statues involved considered ‘high art’ and attacked as such? The battle was surely over the creation of a public memory manipulated by the positioning of a monument which was also vulnerable precisely because of its accessible location. The statue’s artistic merits were not the issue – this was primarily conflict over space not beauty.

Of course, it could be said that iconoclasts uncover the anti-beauty in the image which they find so provocative it requires a violent reaction. So, whatever the delicacy of a pre-Reformation devotional object, an evangelical or later Puritan saw that dwarfed by a larger truth: the image tells an ugly lie. But, as this exhibition showed, the reaction was not always complete dismemberment but maiming by slashing or cutting out of an offending element. Perhaps, then, iconoclasm should be re-defined as the intentional disendowing of an object of its value as an icon.

The irony is that the process of disendowment does not entirely remove the artistic: it can only change its focus. The stand-out work on display – worth, as they say, the entrance fee alone – is Thomas Johnson’s 1657 depiction of Canterbury Cathedral (in private hands), shown because it depicts the Puritans at work, smashing glass and searching out wall-paintings but inevitably leaving a shadow of the former art within a structure stunningly reproduced by Johnson’s brush, with all the love of detail of his Dutch contemporaries. The tiny specks of men are at work but it merely redirects attention. The attack on some art endows other art with more power: the charisma of the icon shifts.

This shift may require us to have a broader view of ‘art’ that ‘Art under Attack’ at times allows. One room is given over to discussing the replacement in forward Protestant churches of visual images with written text. This is most strikingly demonstrated with one exhibit, a part of a black-on-white text where the whitewash has faded away to reveal beneath some of the figures that were once integral to the rood screen of which this piece of wood had once been. But the dichotomy is surely too simple. In a culture where the majority would have been illiterate, were the sentences of the commandments placed on the church’s wall merely read? Or was the interaction with these words often itself visual? In two of the items on display, what caught my attention was the care taken with the presentation, which in itself created something fictive. In one case, the triptych of texts, presented closed, where the black lettering against white background, placed within a red-brown surround, was clearly intended to evoke the page of a bound book. In contrast, the other piece used deep hues of red and green on which to write a careful italic-influenced but idiosyncratic, ostentatious script written in gold – a new use for chrysography. The directly pictorial has been removed but these are still images or representations, the art of depicting the concept of the Word. Art, when under attack, has the ability to imitate Proteus and to take on new forms.

Similar points can be extrapolated to other sections of the exhibition. Behind some of the earliest exhibits here lie stories of protection, benign disregard and eventual revival. Too often, we can only speculate whether a near-complete statue outlived Reformation hatred and still exists because it was consciously hidden in order to survive, or simply forgotten and discarded. In some more recent cases, something more happens: the misfortunes of an art work might actually enhance its iconic status. So, the Rockeby Venus gained attention through the slashes across her back inflicted by Mary Robinson in 1914 – a response similar perhaps to the yet-greater status imposed on the Mona Lisa after its disappearance and later damage, or the ‘fresco’ (though, notoriously, not painted with the accepted technique) by the same master in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Last Supper. Is it a function of the impact that iconoclasm has had that we are conditioned to find our art particularly evocative when it is imperfect or incomplete? Such objects allow us to engage through our imagination: in miniature, they are like a walk through the open-roofed nave of a long-dissolved abbey, allowing us to re-construct our own original in our personal idealised form. It is much easier to do that than to think on the absolute loss that has at times occurred – the entire destruction of both object and its memory. If ‘Art under Attack’ fails because it simply cannot let us engage with such obliteration, perhaps that failure – concentrating our thoughts instead on what has lasted and what might have been – is, in itself, art’s Pyrrhic victory.

Rubens, Justus Lipsius and the significance of books

Posted in Art, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 16 June, 2013

This morning I was to be found in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The purpose was primarily to take in the exhibition ‘Il Sogno nel Rinascimento, one of three important Renaissance-related mostre presently on in the city this summer. ‘Il Sogno’ is intellectually ambitious, musing on the potential associations of dreams with art by considering how painters depicted sleep and its impact on the mind. Perhaps inevitably, the show falls short of the aspirations its originators must have had for it.

But visiting the exhibition also allowed an opportunity to re-visit the riches of the Palazzo’s permanent display. And so, walking through the elegant rooms with their oversupply of paintings, I came face to face with Justus Lipsius:

Pieter Paul Rubens, Justus Lipsius and his students (Florence, Palazzo Pitti)

I cannot claim to have acheived neo-stoic calm in my life, or to be an aficionado of Rubens, yet the painting held my attention today, not because of the artist’s self-portrait or the bust of Seneca above Lipsius, but for the books, specifically those at the front of the table — so close to the front, indeed, that they look as if they should topple off it. That, though, was not what struck me first; rather, it was the combination of books on display. You can clearly see that the bottom one is in a white leather binding, the sort of limp cover we often find today on early modern books. The volume above it is rather different, with brown leather wrapped over thick wooden boards, with the corners finished with pieces of metal. It also has two prominent straps and, less distinctly, a lunette in which the book’s title would have been provided. Incidentally, the arrangement is curious: usually, a lunette sits at the top centre of the lower board, and the straps or clasps also attach to that, rather than the front, but the layout suggested in this picture mean that the board on view must be the upper one. Now, that is not unheard-of in this period — indeed, in Florence itself, many of the Medici volumes in the Laurenziana have such an arrangement — but it is not the norm.

Whatever the implications of that, the main point that caught my eye was the contrast between these two books. Rubens depicts this in the pages of each volume: the lower one has a uniform edge, suggesting efficient cropping, but the pages of the book above are depicted in some detail as being uneven, with some corners curling. What this all suggested to me was that Rubens may not have been portraying just two books but two volumes of markedly different age, one recently printed, the other older and probably a manuscript. If that were his intention it would fit with the composition of the piece and, indeed, enhance its message: notice how the rug placed on the table at front left creates a diagonal line: if you extrapolate that line across the canvas it moves upwards and backwards through the manuscript and on through Lipsius himself ending with the bust of Seneca that sits behind him. The three elements are united in symbolising venerable learning.

But perhaps as well as enhancing the message, it gives it in a more critical edge. I mentioned how the books sit at the very edge of the table, the lower, modern volume jutting out precariously: is the message that old learning when placed on top of new knowledge has uncertain foundations? And, if so, is the unusual arrangement of the binding’s furniture itself a verbal clue to the viewer to think more deeply about the painting’s implications? We can at least be sure that a message that is not fully spoken and which is not uncritical of modern living would not be out of place at the table with neo-stoicism’s founder.

Time and the Scribe

Posted in Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 16 December, 2012

The Silk Road exhibition — Sulla Via della Seta — at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome is one of those shows that make a few items go a long way. It uses its space to place those ceramics and cloths in a context, conjuring for the visitor an evocation of Xi’an, Samarkand and Baghdad through image, replica, sound and smell. In other words, it belies its American origins, for it seems to me that a characteristic of the great museums in the States — in contrast with most in Europe, excepting (tellingly) the V&A — is that they wish not just to present objects but to capture a whole civilisation. That principle of display is combined, in this exhibition, with elements created especially for its Italian manifestation, and it is, to my mind, at its strongest when, in the first room, it gives a summary sense of the Italian merchants who travelled the extended trade route and, in the last room, it places specific ‘tartar’ silks beside late medieval Italian devotional paintings, making us look at familiar images with new eyes thinking how incongruous it is that, say, St Bartholomew should be wrapped in a cloak with Chinese decoration.

What, though, most caught my attention was one artefact from the section on Baghdad, there to represent the learned and technical success of that city. It was an example of the water-clock designed in the late twelfth century by Abu’ al Izz ibn Ismail al-Jazari. It works as an hour glass does with sand, though this measures a whole day, by the water dripping into the bottom basin and its movement turning the top of the clock which acts like its face. What struck me was that on the ‘face’ sat a turbaned scribe, a preternaturally long pen stretching before him, and it is the movement of his pen which marks the passage of time. What an association between time and writing! How alien from European mores, where a scribe can be the preserver of the divine or the royal — the essential workman of history itself — but where those activities rarely have a heightened temporal consciousness. Palaeographers look for the dated manuscripts in the hope that the can map for us the development of script but, even in the Renaissance where such specificity was more fashionable, only a small minority carry a year, let alone a day, of production. Even rarer are those books that record the passage of time incurred in their preparation — leaving us to guess how long it took a scribe to complete a folio. And these concerns hardly touch what al-Jazari’s turbaned scribe can represent. I wonder what he would say if he could speak to us:

Cursed be those who claim that because I sit cross-legged I am lesser than those men who stand tall. Can they trace the arc of time as I do with a pen that sits like an extension of my finger? Without my profession, there would be no certainty of law or memory; even the Holy Word would be intangible. The words I write entertain you, teach you, direct you — and define you. But more than any of those achievements is my mastery of time. Without the movement of my pen, you could not measure the parameters within which you live. You would be left squinting at the sun. You come to me and say ‘write down my words so they will last, so after I am dead I will be remembered’. You should also come to me to learn about the passing of the days — for with the movement of my pen so passes the time you have left alive.

Yet, of course, when this scribe is the recorder of time, he is least like an expert in script. For, in Baghdad, the round city, he denotates the passing hours by drawing a circle. This, it could be said, is beyond the expression of words: the circle holds the mystery of infinity. When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that only a madman or a genius (is there a difference?) can draw a perfect circle; it was, I was told, Leonardo da Vinci’s calling-card to chalk on a friend’s wall a circle to show that he had visited when his would-be host was not at home. The seated, unmoving scribe does this every day, and every day is defined by the fact the scribe does this. Thought of in this way, al-Jazari’s clock could stand as the victory of Plato over Heraclitus, the movement of the water becoming the servant to the sublime perfection of the circle.

Give me, though, the imperfection of words over this higher skill. However ephemerally words are recorded — on flimsy paper or even less tangibly on screen — they speak of a person. And the scribe who sits each day drawing that sublime circle is denying that which makes his work most intriguing: the individuality of the script. The drawing of the essential circle may be an essential task but, if you ask me, it is wasting time which could be better spent on the delights of the non-essential.

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